Distortions is not a great title. Unfortunately this issue is quite late, and so no better name could be arrived at. Each of the exhibitions or artworks featured in this issue are, however, part of a larger purpose art seems to fulfil: to make the world strange again, and allow us to perceive it anew, perhaps alter our perceptions of it forever. The power of art often seems to be negligible, but occasionally one has the benefit of seeing art like that which was presented this September, and it can reaffirm the possibilities of what art can be and can do, and how it can alter the world we live in. Seeing Megan Cope’s Blaktism and James Cooper’s Blend 43 in one day (both on their closing days) reaffirmed this sense, of powerful and often exciting possibility still contained within art, to interrogate and challenge the world.

2016: Issue 4: Megan Cope: The Blaktism

The Blaktism. Megan Cope. 2015. Screenshot courtesy the artist, THIS IS NO FANTASY and Dianne Tanzer Gallery

At the end of Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle Azdak, the ‘good and just’ judge accidentally appointed by the emperor, gives a farewell dance to disguise his escape. It is an ostensibly celebratory and joyous occasion, yet one that also marks, diegetically, the return of normality after a failed coup – leading to the escape rather than the freedom of its protagonists. Similarly, at the end of Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest there is also dancing, and Churchill’s play eloquently addressed the uncertainty of the success of the revolution by using dancing in this sequence. In the end, it seemed nothing much had changed there either – a return to normality, which in this case, meant madness and oppression, and was emblematised in the sudden dance. The problem, succinctly presented in these works, is that the dancing that people like Emma Goldman suppose revolutions will result in – the celebratory and euphoric movement of change – seems to be less simple than desired. There is a dichotomous nature to dancing and music that adds to this problem, and can be seen in these two plays presentation of it as associated with both liberation and pacification. Theodor Adorno begins his essay, on the fetish character in music and the regression of listening in outlining this basic problem: that ‘music represents at once the immediate manifestation of impulse, and the locus of its taming. It stirs up the dance of the Maenads and sounds from Pan’s bewitching flute, but it also rings out from the Orphic lyre, around which the visions of violence range themselves, pacified.’ There are even more direct and insidious examples of music’s potency and political mechanisation. To look at the Turkmenistani president giving his subjects a sample of his electro-pop tunes provides us with a prescient image of the subject pacified by/inflicted with music. It reminds me unbearably of the loud pop music we are frequently surrounded with in places like shopping malls.

Megan Cope’s The Blaktism provides us with an image that is closer to home: the ‘blaktism’ of Cope is enforced through ‘clubbing’; the double entendre within this term seeming more appropriate as the near-violent subjugation and conditioning implicit in the act begins to rear its head. The nature of party music is such that we can all predict how it will play out. It is part of its joy, but it is also disturbing for its enforced, military regularity. The music and dancing here strangely enforce the authoritative power of the commonwealth that is put on ironic display in this work. Rather than seeming as separate, the two forces appear to exist in a dangerous and paradoxical joint attempt at coercion. In this manner, Cope addresses the dual indictment of contemporary Australian culture towards Aboriginal people: to politicise in bureaucratic manners their existence, and erase or oppress their cultural and societal strength – in perpetually celebrating such events as Australia Day, and its implication of a wholly unified country that is entirely content within itself.

While there are undoubtedly possibilities to resistance in music as well (we can consider Autechre’s AntiEP as a particularly specific political antagonism to a system that would regulate listening habits) music is also prevalently employed to oppressive ends. The imperative of the consumerist homogeny is to enjoy, and Cope’s work draws on the incessant and obligatory party-culture of our capitalist society, where hedonism is (as Zizek so aptly put it on Q and A) – more and more the ruling ideology.

////Interlude: Is that Michael Jackson’s white glove?

In the extended ending of Black or White, Michael Jackson smashes up a car and breaks windows in an alley while engaging in a highly sexual dance (in post production, racial slurs were added to the destroyed objects to make his violence appear more acceptable). Black or white is a paradoxical song, clearly about equality, the song’s video yet demonstrates the normalising processes of global capital flow, in which race, gender and individuality come to the point that they are exchangeable and interchangeable – particularly in the infamous ‘face changing’ scene, where constantly smiling people morph into each other. An idea I first heard from Francis Russell was that Michael Jackson, in this extended end scene, embodies the sexless, genderless, race-less being of the subjects of global capitalism that this song presents, trying to reproduce themself in a perpetual act of self-copulation, and that they destroy the world in their frustration and inability to do so. I am not sure if I glimpsed Michael Jackson’s white glove or not in the strobe-like lighting of the video, but it seems like an appropriate predecessor to Cope’s attack on the standardised, bureaucratic manner in which aboriginality is decreed by the power of a colonial government, and in how citizenry is enforced by cultural mores such as clubbing. It seems, against the standardisation of Jackson’s subject, that it does matter whether one is black or white; but that what causes it to matter is who has power and who does not. ////

The people with this power remain the Australian government, and we can see how deeply ingrained the elision of aboriginal people in our country is in that we do not yet have constitutional recognition for aboriginal people, but that aboriginal sovereignty has, to my knowledge, never even been discussed in parliament. That Australia refuses to acknowledge that it might have a bit to make up for after a few centuries of oppression – and a continuation of this oppression – is damning. I consider one of the incitements to enjoyment Cope’s work addresses to be the idea (which I have heard espoused) that aboriginal people should be somehow happy with Commonwealth domination and culture. The ‘recognise’ campaign, however, and the celebration of Kevin Rudd’s ‘apology’ (as if that were enough, and everyone could all move on), continues to sublimate the aboriginal subject into (and ultimately subordinate it to) a colonial power’s whims. Against this, the desire for a treaty among some aboriginal leaders has yet to be given adequate attention or consideration before parliament. The bureaucratic control of the situation is what is particularly difficult, and is contained this artwork as well, exposing a continued vestment of power in the commonwealth, that remains based in racist and colonial histories.

Cope’s work addresses this control and its demeaning character in the principle activity of the video. This activity involves a priest-figure administering Cope’s certificate for being an official aboriginal. This is combined with the painting of black face over Cope’s character. The parallel of once-acceptable and now derogatory practice with the suggestion that the colonial government currently and still decrees who is aboriginal, and that Cope is somehow needs her aboriginal character officiated, provides a powerful and necessary argument: that our government continues to be remarkably insensitive and controlling, and that it demeans aboriginal people in this manner.

Cope’s work was an exhilarating evocation of the absurd circumstances aboriginal people are faced with, trapped in a bureaucratic and social nightmare. That the work is not only focused on the bureaucratic absurdity of Cope’s recognition by the government as an ‘official’ aboriginal person, but also on the absurdity of Australian cultural celebration and enforcement makes for a stunningly powerful work. It is one of the most incredible things I have seen this year. The whole of the show it was in, Dead Centre, was full of remarkable art, and although the premise of the show was loose, the strength of each individual artwork made it an extremely successful exhibit.

words by Graham Mathwin

2016: Issue 4: Blend 43: James Cooper

Disney’s empire is made of children’s dreams, and is testament to the prevalence and power of this dreaming – as is this show, that blends together the corporate and the childish in a strange landscape of broken signifiers and images. Cooper’s exhibition is a stroll through signs untethered from their referents; they both yield to recognition and resist interpretation and understanding. We can perceive amongst them Sonic the hedgehog, Felix the cat, some of Guston’s lumpy people and then so many brands I don’t know, but can somehow recognise, among them the familiar and the common – like the eponymous blend 43.

Cooper’s drawings seem, on first approach, to be comparable to pop-art strategies; yet their very clear materiality and basic, linear construction exposes a different agenda. Cooper’s line is not a line that is appropriated, taken from another medium – it is not an elision of the fact that it is aquarelle pencil on board. These lines seem more comparable to the na├»ve artists, Phillip Guston, who is referenced in Cooper’s work, but also to DuBuffet’s ridiculous paintings. The knowing naivety of Cooper’s faltering line appears to examine a wilful infantalisation that is prevalent in contemporary consumer culture. The presence of cartoon characters reinforces this perception. When we have been marketed to from our youth, these industrially produced images take on a totemic character in our lives. The cycle of the production of these images is not upheld in Cooper’s works though; they are instead reflections on the character of existence informed by these products. They have become detritus and waste material, as every sort of commercial image production must become in order to allow more to follow it. So they are, in Cooper’s works, erased and crossed out and hidden from sight. They are failed productions, rendered by a hand that does not try to create the sharp, clear lines of a machine, nor the flat, bold colours of an animation. The faltering character of these drawings is an attempt to come to terms with some more psychological role that these images now play, a sense of recognition we often share.

Cooper’s show is also a resistance to the packaged and the stylized though. These characters are not copies of the products of commercial entertainment; they are a sketchy language, like maps of navigation in a wasteland of images. Their shaky outlines and rough rendering contribute to their strangeness. It is an act of resistance, which takes the language of numerous sources and combines them in a fractured, dream-like landscape. A free associative list, which, like the lists of David Foster Wallace’s radio host, Madame Psychosis, is not unlike a nightmare.

The very name of the show ‘blend43’ is aligned with the bland, bitter, and dirty left-overs/produce of commerce and industry. Instant coffee, freeze dried, pre-packaged, it is a bizarre parallel to the nature of this show – similarly a nightmare perhaps, but without, unfortunately, any of the intelligence and absurdity. This show stands in contrast to its namesake, it is subtle and strange, and a powerful vision of the world we live in. This exhibition was one of the most potent explorations of image culture I have recently seen. Though it still has specific limitations, its willingness to traverse heterogeneous terrain, and the body of cultural signifiers inherited from television and the Internet that makes up our childhood fantasies has accumulated in something important, and fascinating.

words by Graham Mathwin

2016: Issue 4: Finlandisation: Juha Tolonen

This essay was going to be about the way that Tolonen’s images appeared to have been made: through the relative distortions and alterations caused by the use of a view camera, or a tilt-shift lens. However, to my surprise, neither of these implements was employed while Tolonen made this series of works. Their strangeness, their odd and subtle alteration of what is expected of a photograph of the landscape is rather caused by Tolonen’s careful construction of the images. There is no technical device that has been explicitly employed to make these images so strange, other than what appears to be, on Tolonen’s behalf, a desire to achieve a washed-out, detailed vision of a landscape. The grandeur is not contained here in scale nor effect, but in space and distance, in a kind of blandness that encompasses the near and far with equal casual disinterest. These photos pull on our eyes, despite their dedication to what might be termed uninteresting.What is it that has caused the strange distortions in these works, which play with our perceptions? The images do have a relatively long depth of field, and perhaps it is this, the equivalence of detail in the foreground and back-ground, that is so confusing. The camera does not see life like our eyes, and can show us things in a degree of specificity (and simultaneously) that we cannot grasp physically. I am reminded of the oddness of Jacques Tati’s films, in the exceedingly long depth of field that he uses, and the distortions to our mode of vision that they cause (in the online catalogue, Mike Gray compares these images to scenes from the Coen Brother’s Fargo). They compress our field of view, the camera’s single eye producing a flat plane rather than an out-of-focus fore-and-background. Both Tolonen and Tati’s work are possessed of an older weirdness: the weirdness of early renaissance painting, such as Piero della Francesco’s, where all objects, despite being aligned in virtual, perspectival space, are given equal weight in their detail and rendering. Just like Francesco used architecture in a way that was typical of the dawn of perspective – never letting the buildings overlap the frame of the painting, but always sit beyond the imaginary window of the picture plane, so Tolonen’s images have the sense that their architecture is beyond the plane, never intruding into the gallery, never spilling out of the frame with their scale. It is an effect that, like Francesco’s work, suggests we are viewing the world through a window, or looking on a model. The compositional power of Francesco’s work also reciprocates with Tolonen’s photos, which are similarly precise in how they are put together. The precision necessary to do this is what seems to offer a link to Tolonen’s work. It also exposes Tolonen as a classicist. Everything in his photos seems to exist outside a window, with this unaccountable distance between the subject and us.The Playground. 2014. Juha Tolonen. Courtesy of the artist.

We can sense a slight alteration of this classical plane in many of Juha’s diptychs, where, to allow for a horizon but to avoid a seamless panorama, he places several images at different heights in combination. It does not break the window onto space, nor the strange impression his images give of being models, yet it offers an instance of the process that is often undertaken in our very viewing of these images: a mis-alignment of sensibilities with the image that is presented to us.

Tati, though, is a useful point of reference for the subject of Juha’s work as well as their appearance. Tati’s films revolve around a comedic subject against a utilitarian modernity, that attempts relentlessly to optimise living and subjugate people to its rule in ever more absurd ways. Tati’s pre-modern Mr. Hulot crosses the functionality of industrial modernity, leaving a train of disaster and romance. Tolonen’s images invoke, like Tati’s films, modernity – though one quite different from the birth of modernity Tati lived through. It is not the simple shine of new glass buildings of La Defense in Tolonen’s work – it is a more complex, duller, more concrete image. It is washed out and bleached where Tati’s films were vibrant and sharp. However, the omnipresence of bureaucratic and modern functionality is there in both works, and the relatively long depth of field seems remarkably appropriate to imaging this space of heightened specificity and exacting detail implied by bureaucratic mechanisms.The absence of drama in Tolonen’s images is something that reciprocates with this interest in specificity. I should rephrase that: the absence of melodrama. The drama of Tolonen’s images is more to do with the absence of expectation being rewarded. The sunny and beautiful landscape of Western Australia has been revealed as the bureaucratic space that it most usually is, ruled with a totalising banality like most modern cities. In a word, the glamour is no longer there. There is instead an imperative and directive contained in his very controlled, ordered and placid images of Perth and Finland: that we look harder, and look more, and try to understand what is going on.

2016: Issue 4: Creep: Salote Tawale

Creep. 2014. Salote Tawale. Photo by Dan McCabe.

Creep. 2014. Salote Tawale. Photo by Dan McCabe.

For a comprehensive overview of Success’ latest show, it is highly recommended to read Francis Russell and Gemma Weston’s essays on the show.

Success’s ominous air, alluded to in Weston’s essay, is one of the reasons this work operates so well here. The sound, a repeat of the refrain of Radiohead’s Creep (‘you’re so special, you’re so very special, but I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo, tell me what am I doing here, I don’t belong here’) fills the entrance by the freight elevator and the vastness of the main space. The source is revealed only when we enter through a dark doorway, inconspicuous and barely lit, and see an enormous face loom at us from the projection at the wall, a video filmed on a smartphone, or a laptop, or something similar, with a light that illuminates only the face (that appears to come from the recording screen, but this is perhaps an assumption without basis), and leaves the background obscured.

The work is one of the most effective engagements with the strange ambience of Success’ peculiar appearance. It hides itself in the vast interior of the space, and yet it allows us to experience it throughout the space. It forces us into intimacy when we finally encounter the work, and the scale, always a problem when one has such a broad expanse as Success’ main space, finally seems massive. The oppressive air of Success is, in this moment, most appropriate.

Oddly, the work reads almost like an affirmation of common sentiment of one of Radiohead’s biggest hits. Radiohead themselves notably came to hate the song, as it was so popular. They apparently renamed it ‘crap’ amongst themselves. Tawale has used pop music before, and from similar common-language sources (does he really love me? Featuring an unaccompanied vocal cover of Whitney Houston’s I wanna dance with somebody). Similarly Creep is performed in unaccompanied vocal. It is yet difficult to judge the relationship between the original song and its re-production in both cases. They each seem like odd homages in their re-performance; the videos and installation that accompany them are the elements that proffer alternate interpretation. In both cases, they are hidden – I wanna dance with somebody is hidden in a trash can, inside a cardboard room filled with indoor plants, while Creep is hidden in a side space, with its sound echoing through the rest of the vast interior. This hiding, and the intimacy it eventually forces, develops a relationship between the extremely public nature of popular music, and the strangely intimate possibilities of someone re-performing the polished results of studio engineering.

In this show about identity, there is also an undeniable identity-based reading of the work. I yet hesitate to read too much into the appropriation of Radiohead (white, male, British) into Tawale’s diasporic, queer context. It is strangely not the primary reading the work seems to invite. Despite the use of the first person and the constant refrain of self-diminishment that invites an identity-politics like reading, the relationship it appears to zoom in on is that of the audience and performer, and the strange alienation and power relationships of each to the other. There is something both attractive and threatening about the face looming out of the wall at us. It is so much bigger than us, and appears sheltering, protective and aggressive all at once, and in such a small space it bursts out of the frame and out of focus, and ruptures the divides of any controlled framing. There is still something about identity in this relationship of the audience to the performer though. It is not a straightforward relationship, and this is why I hesitate, yet there is uncertainty as to who is empowered and who is controlled. The work is vast, omnipresent in the space, and it overwhelms us. Yet it is Tawale who is singing about not belonging, about being a ‘creep’, who seems to be at the mercy of us telling them what they’re doing.

Perhaps, much like Radiohead became frustrated with their song, this re-performance is Tawale’s annoyance at being reminded of her supposed ‘weirdo’ identity, and the repetition of this constant differentiation becoming something grating, overwhelming and exhausting – especially in its internalisation, an internalisation that, as Weston points out, seems to be repeated on the gallery goer. The repetitive and endless nature of the work seems to reciprocate with this reading. There is something addictive, but also tiring about the song’s refrain being performed again and again and then put on repeat, often with particular words selected to be sung over, as if a record is skipping. Perhaps the most important elements of the work is finally our uncertain position in relationship to it. It permeates the space, and worms its way into our ears, and is simultaneously comforting and frightening.


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